The Mental Health Commute

Many industries that prided themselves on their frenetic workaholic reputations, like stockbroking, financial trading etc have now discovered that they can work perfectly well from home with no loss to either their results or their ego.  It has been a real surprise to many CEOs who had previously dismissed remote working out of hand and has bought many improvements to work life balance.

Once the schools open on a more consistent basis working from home will be even more satisfying and productive and analysts are predicting a long-term shift to home working.

One of the stranger things some of our colleagues have mentioned missing, however, is their commute.  Not the sitting in stationary traffic on the ring-road part, or more commonly being rammed against someone’s armpit for forty-five minutes on a train, but the dividing line between work and home that is provided by the commute.  Annoying as it was, the commute did provide a buffer zone between home and work.

Being catapulted out of a Zoom conference call and straight into children’s teatime or a sulky teenage row can be disorientating.  It also means your partner may find themselves pinned to the wall for ten minutes while you describe every laborious detail of your planning meeting and who said what to whom.

For those who are in flat shares and confined to one room, the temptation is to keep working, or stop and start, which blurs the boundaries horribly and gives the sense that work is never-ending.

As a result, workplace coaches, who are doing brisk business helping employees navigate the new normal, are advising a “mental health commute”.   They recommend the following:

  • Arrive at your desk ten minutes before beginning work, with a coffee, and read whatever newspaper you would normally read on your commute. Move your mind from home to work.
  • Wear “outside shoes”. Yes, it may be comfortable to slop around in socks but you need to help your subconscious shift from casual to professional.
  • Get outside during your lunch break (and obviously, make sure you have one). You’d be amazed how your daily trot to Pret helped refresh your brain; no need to miss out on it now.
  • When you finish work, turn off your laptop (properly off, don’t just push the cover down) and spend a little time reading the newspaper. If you can, get out again to walk around the block.  Even ten minutes will give you that decompression time to enter wholeheartedly back into family life or leisure and reset those boundaries.

Of course, if you want to entirely recreate the commuting experience, you can wedge yourself into a corner for an hour and get someone to bash you with a rucksack, but we don’t recommend it.

Seven out of 100 is…not enough

Following our recent Linked In post (Women Should Not be News) on the fact that women being included on company boards is unfortunately staggering enough to keep making news, we are delighted to announce that the number of female chief executives in the FTSE 100 is to increase to seven.  Seven!  The world’s gone mad.  This is after Susan Davy was named as the new chief of South West Water.

In addition, Amanda Blanc is becoming Aviva’s chief executive and Gill Rider is the new chair of Pennon which also boasts a female chief executive.

Perhaps…just perhaps…we are at the very summit of the slippery slope to equality.  Let’s hope so.

Who You Gonna Call?

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has become the Ghostbusters of post-COVID business life, leaping to the defence of Britain’s employers as the government guidance trickles out.

Its suggestions to date include a full rebate for lost hours if staff are identified through track-and-trace, back to work vouchers to help small businesses cope with the financial implications of pandemic adjustments and most heroically of all, a demand that large corporations that received financial help from the government should be compelled to pay their suppliers within a month. Britain’s small business were owed more than £23bn in unpaid bills and that was at the end of 2019, BEFORE the shut-down. Since coronavirus, almost 2/3 of small companies have either not been paid at all or been paid late, according to FSB research.

In addition, an FSB survey revealed that one in five small companies were still closed because reopening under the existing guidance would not be viable. The organisation appears to be keeping the pressure up on the Chancellor not to overlook the little guys. Thanks, FSB – not all heroes wear capes….

Colour blind tech

The issues around the higher arrest or stop and search figures for people of colour, both here and in the US, has put technology under the spotlight.

Surveillance systems are being produced and sold to councils, police and shops but serious flaws have been revealed that may produce biased results.   Trials of face scan tech and training data is reputedly tested on photos of mostly white, male faces.  As a result, the data becomes a little less reliable when it is presented with a woman or anyone with darker skin.

Amazon’s facial recognition software Rekognitions was less reliable when it came to identifying gender if the person was darker skinned or female.  Self-driving cars, researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology found, were better at detecting light skinned people, which led to accidents when the cars failed to identify black people.

In 2018, MIT found that face recognition systems were wrong in a third of all cases involving black women but were almost 100% accurate when it came to the identification of white males.  Again, this was attributed to trials being conducted on pictures of white men.  OK tech can’t change the world but SURELY it can fix this?

Green shoots of recovery?

Brexit is believed to be putting Britain at a disadvantage in terms of green tech, particularly hydrogen projects, despite being the first country to set a net zero carbon emission target.  The government has provided £70m to two small hydrogen projects, in comparison with Germany, Portugal, China, Japan and the United States who have all invested heavily. The global hydrogen market is believed to be growing to $1tn over the next 30 years.

If we leave the EU on a no-deal, however, as a nation we will miss out on the chance to be involved in the European Union’s Green New Deal, which aims for zero emissions by 2050.  Ballou works with Ecosia, the search engine that uses profits to plant trees, (the organisation had planted 60m trees by 2019) and we’re always delighted to work with green tech companies.   The prospect of the UK falling behind in the development of eco technology is a depressing one and on a personal level for Ballou, it would be deeply sad for us as an organisation not to be able to continue to work with other pioneers in such a vital and worthwhile sector.

Women directors should not be news

The fact that Marks and Spencer has recruited two female non-executive directors made the business sections.  The eight strong board now boasts three women.

This wouldn’t seem a cause for Champagne and bunting, were it not for the fact that more than 85% of companies have NO women executives on their main boards.  Count them….none.

These figures come from The Pipeline, the organisation that serves FTSE 100 companies across all sectors to promote hundreds of female executives successfully.  Its annual independent report of the gender gap in the FTSE 350 makes depressing reading.

The Government’s target of 33% of women in leadership roles by 2020 is nowhere near being met.  9% of executive directors on main boards are women and that figure has been unchanged since 2017.  A spectacular (hollow laugh) increase of 0.8% since 2018 has meant that now a heady 17.1% of executive committee members are women.  One in five companies have no women on their executive committees.

Ballou was founded by Colette Ballou and is run by Colette and female CEO Cordy Griffiths, and we have a healthy gender representation within the organisation, as you would expect.  This puts us definitely in the minority; only 3.7% of companies have female CEOs, down from 4.6% two years ago.

The old “male, pale and stale” stereotype of British company boards and executive committees is proving hard to dislodge, despite the fact that companies with 25% or more women on their executive committees achieve an impressive 16% net profit margin, 10% higher than business without a woman on their executive committees.

Putting women on boards and executive committees is not egalitarian lip-service.  Companies fare better with more women in senior roles.  And if you think you can wait before you start to take action, think about this; at our current rate of progress, it will be almost 2090 before executive committees achieve gender parity.  Is this what we want for our sons and daughters at work?

History shows us that the only way to achieve parity is by monitoring, mentoring and promoting women out of the middle management tier and obtaining male buy-in to the initiative.  It has to be an issue that is kept front of mind.  An “oh well, it’s just turned out like that” attitude with a shrug of the shoulders just maintains the status quo.   It’s only by making a conscious effort can we achieve a situation in which a news story about three new non-executive directors does not need to focus on the fact that they are female.

Surviving’s just fine, thanks

Just as the people that declared that unless you emerged from lockdown speaking Catalan and having knitted your own greenhouse you’d basically failed, businesses are being lectured at too.

If we believe the business pages, it’s not about surviving but thriving.  Broadsheet business sections are filled with profiles of those companies for whom the lockdown has been a boon. Sportswear manufacturers who are dealing with increased demand due to the Joe Wicks effect, the gaming industry, bike shops, supermarkets and the makers of hand sanitisers have all enjoyed unprecedented success.

Let’s not forget that these companies just happened to be in the right sphere for the knock-on effects of coronavirus.  To hold them up as shining examples of innovation and hard work is a little disingenuous; they have successfully capitalised on circumstance, which is not quite the same thing.  A maker of hand sanitiser would have had to be doing something quite remarkably wrong NOT to succeed in the last three months.

Could we have a small, low-key, subdued cheer for the companies who rather than “smashing it” in lockdown have managed to keep ticking over?   Who’ve had to try and keep furloughed staff buoyant, tried to maintain clients and deal with financial uncertainty?

Most business owners or senior teams have had to make more unpleasant decisions in the first half of 2020 than they had to make in the whole of last year.   To every business owner that’s reached Friday with a sigh of relief and thought “phew, we got through another one”, we salute you.  Not with a double page spread in the business section, but with recognition, sympathy and admiration.

What IS app?

We’ve all done it.  Got confused about who we’re talking to on WhatsApp and sent the message to the person we’re talking ABOUT instead of to the person we’re talking to.  We’ve all experienced that moment of blind panic that feels like a fortnight when we realise we just pressed “Reply” rather than “Forward” accompanied with a sarcastic sentence.  The kicker is the time we’ve thought “I really really ought to get round to updating my passwords” the day before we discover we have unexpectedly bought a mobile home in Honolulu.

So imagine how Tony Alves, the former finance director of Volga Gas, felt when he realised that he’d been sending sensitive information to someone he thought was a non-executive director of the company over WhatsApp, only to discover that it was a hoaxer.  The share price of Volga Gas surged by 30%.

Technology and the possibilities it presents has made the world more exciting and more full of potential. But along with all the positivity, the world can seem a more threatening place, with dark forces being able to worm their way deep into our lives.  From 5G being responsible for coronavirus to M15 monitoring you through the camera on your laptop, tech conspiracy theories abound.  Get a group of committed techies together and it won’t be long before the stories begin, whether jokingly or semi-serious.

As an analyst noted recently, tech conspiracy theorists have a touching faith in people’s ability to work together efficiently, as most project managers find it difficult enough to persuade a group of eight people to get a legitimate project off the ground successfully, on time and without early disclosure.  The effort required to organise some sort of worldwide underground project with synchronised timing and total secrecy would be superhuman (or maybe that’s the point, if the Lizard People are your chosen evildoers).

So when we hear about poor Mr Alves chatting away on WhatsApp, entirely understandably thinking he was talking to someone who turned out to be a picture and a fake number, there’s almost something comforting about it.  It had far-reaching consequences, but it wasn’t a conspiracy, it wasn’t a diabolical plot, it was a confidence trick, which worked.  100 years ago it would have been someone ringing up and using a sock over the telephone receiver to disguise their voice.   We can’t anticipate the worst constantly, or expect people not to be who we think they are, or we’d all be nervous wrecks and quite frankly being alive at the moment feels like an achievement.  Humans don’t need conspiracy theories, we can muck it up all by ourselves, so relax.

Change your password though anyway.

Meeting ourselves coming back

In the olden days when we had ‘amusing’ posters on our office walls rather than brightening our working day with sending each other Yoda memes, there was one such poster that featured a solitary penguin. The caption read “Feeling lonely?  Bit bored?  Have a meeting!”

Unfortunately, the advent of COVID-19 seems to have sent some of us hurtling back in time.    What would have been a casual chat in the hallway has now, out of necessity, become either an email or another Zoom call.

In 2020 BC (Before Corona) we would have crossed the office and just asked how a project was going, how a client was doing, or even said “by the way did you hear about x?”    Now our communication has become much more formal.  One would expect our new working circumstances to have curtailed meetings but instead they seem to have increased the number of meetings for many of us.

Partly this could be a reaction to “out of sight, out of mind”.  Despite lockdown starting two months ago, there remains a deep-seated anxiety in some people that if they are not permanently visible either on screen or in an inbox then may be perceived as inactive.

Permanent working from home also seems to induce the worry in us that we may be being left out of the loop, which again requires a meeting “just to check we’re all on the same page”, i.e. “just to check that things aren’t happening that I don’t know about”.

Lockdown has also taken away the opportunity for us to have brief sanity checks.  What can seem like a wonderful idea at one’s desk can be revealed for the lunacy it actually is when it’s run by a patient colleague at the next desk.  The only way now to get that sanity check is to either ring a colleague (who’s usually on a Zoom call) or send yet another email which gives a potentially crazy idea slightly more credence than it was ever meant to have.

Along with insecurity and lack of sanity checks, lockdown has also created circumstances rife with the opportunity to completely lose perspective.  Normally our lives are bookended by a commute to and from the office and if we’re lucky and sensible, a trip into the great outdoors to get some lunch.  Even a quick jaunt to Pret can put things back into their box.  We can see other people who don’t know us and don’t care how Colin just behaved in that meeting, and it reassures us that it’s not a world-ending deal.  Now it’s just us and the screen (and Colin behaving badly in a meeting).   The world seems to have shrunk.

But…it hasn’t. Soon we’ll be back in Pret or Itsu, forgetting about Colin, and being able to say to a colleague “just talk to me a minute while I put the kettle on…”.  We’ll appreciate our colleagues more in real life, we may even get to appreciate meetings where everyone laughs at the same time rather than one person lagging and having to have the joke explained afterwards.  Some of us might actually get to enjoy our commutes (although I give that about two days before the novelty wears off again).  In the meantime, we all need to make sure we’re having a meeting for everyone’s benefit, not just to soothe our own raging insecurity, which although is entirely natural at this very strange time, just adds to everyone’s stress.

The problem with quirkiness

We’ve had Elon Musk with his space rockets, his online feuds and his child, who has apparently been named after what happens when your cat gets on the keyboard.  We’ve had Jeff Abramovich and his yacht with its own missile defence system.  Now the new eccentric entrepreneur on the block is Rony Abovitz who claimed that Magic Leap, his AI start up built around digital content via a headset, was worked by “squirrels and sea monkeys”.  Cue PR person with head in their hands, rocking gently.

Mr Abovitz however may not be on the block for long, as his first prototype was the size of a washing machine and the accompanying promotional video was revealed to owe a little more to CGI than was preferable.  Merger partners faded away and Mr Abovitz is now licking his wounds.

Perhaps, just perhaps, being facetious to a tech journalist about how your product works is only a successful strategy if people have experienced it…um…working.  Just a thought.